jock barnes and the syndicalist tradition in new zealand
Pen in hand trying to start an article is like...well, you can imagine. In front of me are three letters written to the anarchist paper Direct Action in the early 1990s. The letters are from Harold "Jock" Barnes, who died in early June aged 92.
Jock Barnes was the syndicalist president of the Auckland Watersiders Union during the lockout of 1951. Jock and the working class families he represented were the bearers of a tradition that stretched back 60 years, to the rise of "new unionism" in the 1890s, a grassroots unionism known as syndicalism.
There have been four major confrontations between the working class and bosses in this country: the Maritime Strike of 1890, the Waihi Goldminers' Strike of 1912, and the Waterfront Strikes of 1951. And in all of these upheavals, syndicalism has played a major role.
A brief history. In the late-1880s the unskilled organised themselves in new unions. In 1890 they took on the government and employers. They were beaten back. By 1905, workers were again organising. This was the era of the Red Federation and a growing anarcho-syndicalist movement, represented in this country by the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW).
Once again, workers and their families had the shit kicked out of them at Waihi and on the waterfront. But by 1915 they were organising again with an upsurge after World War 1 and the collapse in the 1920s, only to start reorganising and fighting back in the 1930s through to the Waterfront Lockout of 1951. In 1951, militant unionism was all but destroyed and remained suppressed for the following 20 years.
Jock Barnes grew up as part of this continuous movement and was later a central character in it. It was a movement of people fighting back. Let's take a closer look. The following is the first letter Jock wrote to Direct Action, dated 21 October 1992.
The Waterside Workers Union, particularly Auckland branch, had a strong syndicalist philosophy. We realised that to build a strong fighting union required more than just waterfront work and demonstrated our ability to successfully operate and control other ventures.
We maintained three bands. A senior and a boys silver band and a highland pipe band. The senior silver band was A grade and had won N.Z. championships. The boys - aged 11 to 14 at their first appearance - won the C grade championships. They were invited to Australia where they won the b grade championships of Australia and N.Z. We had debating teams, bowls, cricket, rugby league, soccer and our own benefit society. An annual picnic with attendances of up to 15,000. The importance of catering for, educating our women folk and making them an integral part was fully realised. Regular dances and socials were held and ladies committees established.
The value of this was seen in 1951, when I believe as never before in our country, women stood solid and fought with their men. We had a union so badly needed but so lacking today.
Yours in solidarity
The second letter is dated 2 January 1994.
Alex and I were later close associates in the watersiders as was Johnny Mitchell. Particularly in Auckland branch where we had veterans of the 1913 Waihi Strikes. Men like Paddy Rooney and Charlie Opie who had been goaled and from whom I learned a lot. Many ex-seamen who knew what it was all about and three at least, IWW.
If it is the same Bill Murdock, I knew him well. His son jack and I were admitted to the union in early 1935 and were close friends. Bill was a big man with a big voice and there was seldom a meeting when it was not heard.
They lived at Reinter Ave close to Eden Park. Jack, with quite a few of our members, was a c.o. [conscientious objector] in the war and was in a concentration camp for the duration. They were kept on our books as union members and Jack was very active in '51. I saw him last at our 40th reunion. Of a later generation of men like Tom Spiller and Taffy Patterson, who fought in the Spanish War.
I often think that had a union like ours been around ten years ago the Labour renegades and their collaborators would have been stopped in their tracks.
Many thanks for the Industrial Worker. It is a long time since I saw one.
THE INSURGENT YEARS
Some comments about the letters. The years 1900-1914 and briefly after World War 1 could be described as the insurgent years of the revolutionary labour movement. Anarcho-syndicalism was a major, if not dominant, current within this movement.
However, with the triumph of the Bolshevik revolution and the rise of the Labour parties, this movement was split in three. Many genuine revolutionaries saw the Russian Revolution as the way to go, only to become disillusioned later or fall victim to the communist death machine, as in Spain and throughout Europe.
Many IWW members joined or were founders of the various communist parties. Most left within a short time. Lucy Parsons is one who comes to mind. She was the widow of Albert Parsons, one of the Haymarket martyrs hanged in 1886. Lucy Parsons was a founding member of the IWW in 1905 and a champion of workers rights until her death in a house fire in 1940. She joined the Communist Party not out of ideological conviction but because she saw the Communist Party as an active, growing, combative movement that was ready, it appeared, to take on the bosses. Of course, the reality was different. All the commies wanted to do was replace one lot of bosses with another.
It was the same in New Zealand. Many original IWW workers also joined the party. Dick Schofield was one. No doubt the same could be said for may others, as Jock points out.
However, this was not always the case. Wobblies like Bill Murdock, who Jock mentions, never joined the Communist Party. Bill was the editor of the IWW paper the Industrial Unionist in 1913 and an organiser of the One Big Union Council in Auckland in 1920. He was a fluent speaker of Maori - as was his son Jack - and the Industrial Unionist carried a regular column written by Bill in Maori.
Jack Murdock was an activist all his adult life. He was a conscientious objector during the World War 2 along with anarchists like Ian Hamilton, active in 1951 as Jock says, and a member of the MAP movement against prisons in the 1970s. He died in the early 1990s.
Looking back over the past century and considering that history is of course written by the winners, it is easy to get the impression that until 1989 the communist movement was all but dominant, without realising that it was only one part of the labour movement - and a negative one at that.
Jock Barnes and working class people like him personified the other part of that movement - our movement.
On a more personal note, when I became involved in the anarchist movement in 1975 (three years pissing around with commies in the early 70s taught me enough about them and how power politics operates) because we were a small minority of activists, anarchists in this country were fenced into a position of defining ourselves in terms of communist dialogue.
The Communist Party and the Trotskyist SAL and SUP were the dominant forces on the left. It was always difficult to establish a continuous presence considering the age of people involved, and we were always coming up against the commies and spending a lot of time attacking them instead of establishing our own agenda. Jock Barnes belongs to one of the earlier generations for whom this wasn't a consideration.
Today we're in a different situation. The communists are trying to catch up to the anarchists. We have our own agenda and the commies are irrelevant, which is just how it should be. It can only get better.